If anyone ever asks my favorite TV show, I have two answers: “The Wire,” because I think it’s the best crafted, most meticulously imagined, most fantastically realized TV show, ever. Ever. I think David Simon is a genius, and watching “The Wire” (a binge-watch of five seasons in three weeks two years ago) and reading his books “Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets” and “The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood” (consumed last fall and this past spring) were some of the best choices I’ve ever made.
But the television show I fell in love with first, the one closest to my heart? “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” It premiered when I was in fourth grade, and I watched it every week, talked about it with my friends, loved it fully. I presented a paper about the Buffy/Angel relationship at the Pop Culture Association of America’s national conference last year, and it being on Netflix Instant entirely means that every now and then I can watch the season two finale “Becoming” and sob uncontrollably into my laptop. It’s a problem.
When it’s October, though, I queue up one very specific episode: “Halloween,” from season two. Is that too obvious for you? Sorry I’m not sorry. The episode is one of the most straightforward when it comes to dealing with issues regarding Buffy’s identity and her concern about not being a “normal” girl with a “normal” boyfriend, but elements of the plot remain relevant to the next five seasons of the show. Did show creator Joss Whedon, who co-wrote this episode, know that some things he was suggesting here would reverberate for dozens of episodes afterward?
I’m not sure if that much forward-thinking was involved, but I love how this episode feels like the introduction of lots of important things. Of pieces of Buffy’s personality that will be important for the rest of her high school life; of a darker, more brazen side of Willow that will become more relevant as she becomes a more powerful witch; of a tactical, logical aspect of Xander’s personality that you wouldn’t realize from all his sex-crazed talk. They’re sparks of ideas that then build and build, and it gives me glee to see them in play for the first time.
The plot of “Halloween” is straightforward enough: Buffy and Angel have just decided to start dating again, and Buffy, like any teenage girl facing the insane handsomeness of David Boreanaz (HE WAS SO DREAMY, YOU GUYS) is unsure of herself, whether she is feminine or beautiful enough for him (obviously she is, but we have to suspend some disbelief here). So she buys an outfit from the new Ethan’s Costume Shop—a frilly, 18th-century pink dress with a giant skirt and a corset and a matching brunette wig—that she thinks would be something Angel would like, something women would wear when he was young and human. Also from the store, Willow buys a ghost costume and Xander a soldier costume—and then, because Ethan is an asshole who messes with black magic just for the fun of it, they all become their costumes.
Which means Buffy doesn’t have any slayer powers; Willow can walk through walls (wearing the outfit Buffy encouraged her to wear, a short crop-top and miniskirt that she was hiding under her ghost sheet); and Xander doesn’t really recognize his friends, but has excellent military training. Spike, the Big Bad of this season, plans an ambush on Buffy, but eventually Giles beats up old friend Ethan (this is the first time we get a hint of Giles's dark past, especially with the nickname "Ripper") and the spell is reversed, restoring Buffy’s powers and allowing Angel to assure her that no, he didn’t like those old-timey, too-proper women, and he wanted someone exciting and independent—just like her. They kiss, and it’s great. Ah, pre-"Twilight" human-and-vampire love.
The episode is, I’ll admit, really cut-and-dry, and there isn’t much danger in it; you know while watching it that Buffy, of course, can’t stay an 18th-century girl, Willow can’t stay dead, Xander can’t stay a soldier. (The other two "Buffy" Halloween episodes, season four's "Fear, Itself" and season six's "All the Way," are also standalone episodes.) But it’s not really what happens in this episode that matters, but how it reflects the idea of Halloween as a time for transformation: Buffy and Angel start their relationship again; Willow gets a bit of confidence (and the attention of future boyfriend Oz, who asks when watching her walk by, “Who is that girl?!”); and Xander gains military planning skills that will be quite useful next season, when the group battles the Mayor and his Ascension, and in season seven, when they have to organize all the baby Slayers to fight against the First Evil.
These aren't huge character changes at first, but they have impact; they reflect desires that will only grow and become more actualized with time. Willow wants to be more sure in her own skin; she’ll eventually grow so powerful that she can activate all the uncalled Slayers and tap energy from the Earth. Xander helps organize the fight against the First Evil, and in the eighth and ninth comic book seasons of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” is running intensely involved military operations around the world for Buffy's cause.
And Buffy and Angel—they just want to be in love, and we all know how tragically that turns out. Extremely, overwhelmingly tragically, and “Halloween” has an important part to play in that. Get your ass over to Netflix Instant and check it out.